Dr. Scott NeSmith and his fellow researchers have left a delicious legacy to the state of Georgia. Plentiful harvests in the “Blueberry Belt” region of south Georgia are thanks to innovative research and breeding programs in the state.
In 1990, a young NeSmith began working at the University of Georgia and contributed to a blueberry-breeding program that had been in existence since the 1926.
“My first projects were related to increasing production through crop management and use of plant growth regulators,” NeSmith says. “I was the third-generation blueberry breeder.”
Building on existing research and exploring new possibilities, NeSmith and other blueberry researchers revolutionized the Georgia industry by developing numerous new varieties. The breakthrough came when the team developed varieties that grow well in Georgia.
“We must have varieties adapted to our area, otherwise, we could not be competitive,” NeSmith says. “Our winters and springs are very different than other geographic regions, and we have to have varieties that can function in our climate.”
NeSmith and his colleagues studied the two main species grown in Georgia, the southern highbush and rabbiteye. Within these two major species, Georgia is home to 10 to 12 different varieties of blueberries.
Rabbiteye blueberries are native to south Georgia, and the UGA breeding program has been developing varieties for nearly 75 years. The varieties developed by NeSmith and his associates at UGA gained recognition on a global scale.
“Our blueberry varieties have actually become popular internationally in the past 10 years,” NeSmith says. “We have licensed UGA -developed blueberry varieties on every continent except Antarctica.” One new variety developed by UGA and expected to grow in popularity is the trademarked Titan berry, which can grow four times the size of the average berry.
In Georgia, the blueberry industry generates vital revenue and job opportunities. Sales for fresh market blueberries, frozen berries and value-added products are booming.
“When I started in 1990, there were around 3,000 acres of blueberries being grown, with a value of maybe $3 million,” NeSmith says. “Today, we have acreage approaching 20,000 acres, and a crop value of $250 million-plus.”
In 2013, UGA recognized NeSmith with the university’s prestigious Inventor’s Award.
In addition to commercially sold berries and products, Georgia blueberries are important to the agritourism industry. U-Pick operations and other attractions engage the public and educate them about agriculture.
Sticky-fingered children delight in munching fistfuls of berries fresh off the bush, while parents appreciate the opportunity to teach their children where their food comes from.